Towards a Post-Colonial Scotland

Nationalism is about the relationship between people and land. Ernest Gellner’s classic definition tells us that “nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent”. In other words, nationalism is the ideology which supposes that the boundaries between political units and people’s self-identification ought to reflect one another. Nationalism has not disappeared in the age of Globalisation. In fact global flows of people and capital have led to diverse nationalist claims such as those from the BNP and the EDL, arguing against “cultural homogenisation” to Jim and Margaret Cuthbert’s claim that the nation-state can redress the problems of global capitalism. Walter Benjamin said “the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule”. History is in a permanent state of emergence and flux. Hybridity and the interstices between bounded units of identification have in many ways replaced those earlier bounded units as the norm. Hybridity and interstices now characterise our age of trans-border flows of people, services, goods, and ideas. This makes it impossible to formulate how cultural and political boundaries can be made to be congruent. Furthermore, clinging to old forms of identification may not help us solve the globalised social problems of today such as the environment and global poverty. As such, we may be better off focussing on how to make politics more humane or more simply, on how to make the world a better place. This article does not seek to support or deny the need for Scottish independence. Rather it argues that we should look beyond nationalist symbols and “self-interest” when we contemplate that ever-looming decision. We should place humans and the planet rather than a particular group of humans at the heart of our politics.

One striking feature about debates on independence in Scotland is that the nationalist politics of old continues to cloud the ongoing search for a humane, outward-looking politics. The independence issue remains haunted by a nationalist identity politics and an exclusivist sense of belonging: us versus them. The fascinating exchanges on Bella Caledonia between Mhairi McAlpine, Peter Kingsnorth, and Justin Kenrick  in some ways reinforce such nationalist boundaries even though they are of the “progressive left” or “outward-looking Green” politics.

Mhairi McAlpine’s criticism of the “English left” was that they speak of the nation to mean British, where she identifies herself as part of a different nation, Scotland. Almost every person from Scotland has faced this encounter with the English (British?) Other. Do we so vociferously object because we are on the progressive left which values human solidarity over nationalism or because we are so attached to national boundaries that it challenges our sense of self-identity? If we use the vocabulary of nationalism in dividing the “Scottish left” from the “English left”, then I would suggest the latter. If we are to be “inclusive, radical and progressive” why do we respond to exclusion with exclusion by dividing the two? Paul Kingsnorth’s response in the comments section correctly raises the criticism that the “English left” is more diverse than can be summarised in a few paragraphs. However, his comment that “our situation is very different from yours” raises an ontological conundrum of who is the ‘we’ and who is the ‘you’ being referred to here. For many nationalists, the answer may be easy: we define ourselves by reference to actual or postulated national/political boundaries. For those on the left the answer is usually social classes, which probably always have and in the age of globalisation most certainly do, cross national boundaries. Justin Kenrick’s article ‘Reclaiming Independence’ attempts to reorient how we think about independence altogether by saying we need to be independent from global capital rather than “drawing a boundary on a map and ignoring the rest of the world”. Independence then is not about “some fabricated cultural sense of self” but about “unhooking ourselves from the machine that is destroying the conditions for life”. Like Kenrick, here I want to argue that politics and humanitarianism must take precedence over identity and nationalism if we wish Scotland to address the most pressing problems of our age: global warming and global poverty. However, how can we square such a commitment with “asserting the right of people in a self-defined area to determine their own affairs”? How is this self-defined area any different from the “desire to make cultural and political boundaries congruent”? Who are the people? Are we not all people? If we are to “remember who we are”, then who on earth are we? Our answers will of course depend on our political persuasions and our self-identifications. However, we ought to consider the regional and global implications of independence for Scotland over our self-perceived need to determine our own affairs. Our affairs will impact upon the whole world.

Voters will have to take the impending politics seriously as parties prepare for independence. Liberal Democrats appear to have collapsed in Scotland, the Conservatives are ‘rebranding’, and Labour are seeking autonomy from Westminster to rescue their reputation from accusations of not treating the Scottish Parliament with adequate seriousness. If we take the SNP as a potential victor in any election in a hypothetically independent Scotland it is hard to see how the world or indeed Scotland benefits. The SNP’s 2011 manifesto does not refer to human rights once. The fact that life expectancy is lower in Calton than in the war-torn Gaza strip is alarming and a perfect example of how Globalisation creates peripheries within centres and centres within peripheries. However, there is no mention in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto of how it intends to “tackle inequality” despite asserting it will do so. The SNP’s campaign to have the responsibility for corporation tax reserved to Scotland so that it can be reduced suggests, as Kenrick argued, that it seeks to invite global capital rather than redress the inequalities it produces. The SNP claims to have helped create a “fairer Scotland”. However, this does not consist in progressive taxation to tackle inequality. Through the abolition of prescription charges and tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges costs are reduced for everyone regardless of income. The SNP’s understanding of “fairness” is less about its stated intention to “tackle inequality” and more to do with a one-size-fits-all approach (equality of treatment rather than equality of consideration). Millionaires don’t pay to use the Tay bridge any more than families on low incomes.

If we look at the SNP’s claims to create a “wealthier Scotland” we don’t simply see a list of economic achievements . We see the promotion of cultural tourism through the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. There are many other forms of cultural tourism which could be emphasised here. Highlighting these two tells us something about the type of identity politics the SNP wishes to promote. As Benedict Anderson tells us, museums are “profoundly political” and they shape the language, which make the nation possible. Museums and tourism emphasise and promote particular aspects of nation-ness and in this case, Scottishness. According to the National Trust of Scotland, the Battle of Bannockburn visitor centre will “establish the site’s position as one of the most historically and culturally important places in Scotland”. Bannockburn was obviously an important historical event. However, by promoting it as a site of such importance today, a particular view of Scottishness is being endorsed and articulated. This is a Scottishness which is underpinned by a celebration of conflict with, and ultimately defeat of, the English Other. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum “offers a truly unique encounter with Scotland’s favourite son”. Again no one can deny the social significance of the poetry of Robert Burns. Nevertheless, to elevate him above all others as our “favourite son” articulates a particular view of the nation where we have an exemplar of a national “tradition” written in Scots to the exclusion of other poets who may have written in Gaelic or English. This hints at an identity politics which hardly point towards an “inclusive, radical, and progressive” Scotland but one where conflict with the English and literature in Scots are not simply mentioned but emphasised. Are Bannockburn and Burns really the symbols we wish to project into a globalising world defining our position with reference to a past we did not live through? This is of course what states have done in the past- they promoted symbols to represent the nation and demand loyalty. However, as a nation with a potentially new state and a tradition of liberalism and tolerance would it not be possible to emphasise a new, humane politics rather than boundaries between humans?

The SNP’s greatest election success has arguably come at the expense of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, owing to the latter’s formation of a coalition government with the Conservatives. This suggests that the Scottish electorate are more likely to vote for protection from free-market politics than an idealised and essentialising vision of Scotland’s past. Scotland is a postcolonial nation. We enjoy basic respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in ways which other nations and indigenous peoples striving for “self-determination” in Tibet, Xinjiang, Chechnya, and Palestine do not. In such places nationalism may be the only form of political mobilisation to gain the rights we enjoy in Scotland. There is no question that there are colonial attitudes which remain amongst certain social classes in England. David Starkey is a case in point. However, we ought to rise above the inclination to respond to nationalism with nationalism. We can avoid creating an unending cycle of identity conflict in which we close the political possibilities of new forms of self-understanding and shape our politics by reference to out-dated cultural boundaries.

Mhairi McAlpine quotes Irvine Welsh who said we “oppress ourselves by our obsession with the English breeding the negatives of hatred, fear, servility, contempt and dependency”. She then goes on to say she would “like to think we have moved on”. Politics and attitudes in Scotland have changed a lot since the days of Thatcher. However, many of us remain oppressed. We allow ourselves to be colonised not by “the English” but by an imperialist political mindset that divides humans and characterises their traits according to fixed national units. This imperialist mindset informs how we ought to think and behave in order to be Scottish. One may say we have little choice but to use fixed national units in terms of structuring the international political system of states but we need not think about humans in this way. If we wish to address human problems, ending the cycle of trying to make cultural and political boundaries congruent would be a start. Independence may offer us an opportunity to decolonise ourselves from the historical oppression, which has left us demanding a politics which draws a stark boundary between us and them and prioritises the self over the other. This means thinking about the implications for ‘them’: can we address the issues of cross-border rights and access to services before embarking on the path to independence? The same should be said of the lack of clarity on Faslane naval base, renewable energy, and poverty in our cities, all of which are more important than changing political boundaries to reflect purportedly ancient and essentialising cultural ones. Most importantly what would our foreign policy look like? If Scottish independence can make the world a better place then we should be all for it. However, to paraphrase that master of post-colonial theory, Frantz Fanon: Scotland is not. No more than England.

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  1. Gellner also, and more profoundly in my opinion, said that “It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round. Admittedly, nationalism uses the pre-existing, historically inherited proliferation of cultures or cultural wealth, though it uses them very selectively, and it most often transforms them radically.”

    The SNP have been making progress in securing their version of Scotland and Scottishness as the dominant one. From events such as the Homecoming, nothing more than a glorified tourism campaign, to academic literature such as Murray Pittock’s “Road to Independence” which uses selective historical analyses and nationalist rhetoric. Pierre Bourdieu, in “Distinction” (1984), talks about the way societal attitudes and ‘taste’ are primarily a product of education, which produce differences that separate people “…there is no area of practice in which the aim of purifying, refining and sublimating primary needs and impulses cannot assert itself, no area in which the stylization of life, that is, the primary of forms over function, of manner over matter, does not produce the same effects. And nothing is more distinctive, more distinguished, than the capacity to confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even ‘common’ (because the ‘common’ people make them their own, especially for aesthetic purposes)” (1984, Introduction pp 28-29). So, the SNP’s project to control the symbolic nature of Scotland and Scottishness, allowing them to forward a version which assists their ideology, will be given increased impetus by virtue of them being in majority government. One way to control the debate is to control the language used, and particularly the meanings of that language.

    George Lakoff has insights into how the Republican Party in the US has controlled the political debate primarily through metaphors – war metaphor, redemption narrative, etc. Historically the SNP have utilised metonomy in the way they substitute “Westminster controlled” for English. There seems to be a current movement to project unionism as being British nationalism, placing this misnomer in direct conflict with Scottish nationalism. ( ) Benedict Anderson is correct when he asserts the ‘imagined’ nature of society, and currently the SNP are the ones waxing lyrical into the ears of the electorate and providing energy to people’s imaginations.

    There is also nothing progressive about what the SNP propose, as Tom Gallagher asserts in ‘The Illusion of Freedom’ (2009) “…if independence comes, Scotland will lack a political elite with the inclination or aptitude to reform an under-performing state. Instead, whichever party is in the ascendant is likely to try and colonize Scotland for electoral purposes, which will make a mockery of self-government” (pg. 210), he asserts that “it will be a continuation of “British patterns of domination and subordination” (pg. 213). Two years later the SNP are in danger of proving him right, and that’s without independence! Why would nothing change? Political talent aside, those who have a vested interest in policy direction, far above that of the electorate, are the same no matter who is in power – the ones who provide the campaign funding. Generally today it is the financial and industrial sectors who are the ones behind party funding, and these are the groups that benefit most from policy direction. It is certainly true that the SNP are a catch-all party, they canvass all faith, age, class, unions and civic groups. But how much of their party financing comes from these groups, I don’t know the figures but I would expect very little.

    Prof Thomas Ferguson, at University of Massachusetts, in his ‘Investment Theory of Politics’, highlights the power that companies that ‘invest’ in political candidates and parties have over future government legislation, to the point that when presidents or parties lose elections the share price of the companies who have backed their campaign drops. He has also found that over time the biggest stock portfolio appreciations have been made by politicians, which he attributes to some level of insider trading, or which we could call simply knowing what contracts are going to be offered or laws introduced.

    It would be interesting to see what affect independence would have on the share price of RBS, Stagecoach or Clyde Blowers. Anybody in favour of lower corporation tax?

  2. MryMac says:

    The Tories have a 61 seat overall majority in England at the moment and consistently vote Tory in much greater numbers than people living in Scotland. If Scotland has an independant government then people voting for left wing policies in England are going to be in a much smaller minority than they already are. This makes me ‘fear for their safety’ and I worry that a lot of people’s political interests will no longer be represented in the English government without the support of all the left wing voters in Scotland. In effect, Scottish independance will have the unfortunate side effect of producing a new oppressed minority in England i.e. the left wing voters living in England. I think it would be good if the larger group of left wing voters living in Scotland could find a way of supporting the minority of left wing voters living in England when Scotland finally gets an independant government from England. I don’t think what I am saying has got anything to do with nationalism or national identities. It is entirely about socio economic circumstances that incline people to vote for the left wing, and having some sort of solidarity with those people.

    Once Scotland gets an independant government, I don’t see the point of the SNP anymore. Independance is an opportunity for politicians to regroup to represent the political interests of the people living in Scotland. The majority like myself are left wing voters. I don’t know how the political landscape will look. New interest groups may emerge. I imagine that some sort of left wing politics will predominate, because that has been the case in Scotland for such a long time. I don’t see how any of this has anything to do with Scottishness as a national identity. There are so many different cultural identities in Scotland, but the majority of people here are left wing voters and that is where we differ from people living in England.

  3. Ard Righ says:

    What an extraordinarily mixed up article. Boil for 5 minutes and reduce the fluffy academia to some realist observations.

    “Scotland is a postcolonial nation”. No. At present, Scotland is an occupied territory, void of the motive force that defines any nation and the self respect of any idea of that nation. The emergent parliamentary route to independence is the future, albeit a bloated talking shop with no power other than a jumped up council at present.

    If you wish to find out about post colonial Scotland, it’s a relatively simple math. Everything that has “Scotland” in the title of the institution was set up via english structures. You will further find -with very few exceptions- that those at the top of these colonial institutions are English (often with a considerable percentage of the employees also), and if they are not, the route still exists within that colonial framework for a bunch of elitist toffs south of the border to veto or nudge any desirable change, with a back door to foreign corporations, syphon a commission from the profits, whilst effecting civic disaster to communities, culture and wealth throughout Scotland, (this is true for anything that is not London or the South Coast) This delivers the unofficial colonist doctrine, destroy culture, steal resources, wreck trade, dis-empower community. Land grab and install “white settlers”or colonists (exactly what is happening to Palestinians, except four hundred years on). To top it all off, every programme on free television has an English perspective, dire english diction and accent, spouting outright lies and triva daily from all sides and many depths and intrigues, again, all with “Scotland” in the title. BBC Scotland! Imagine BBC England with a bunch of Scots “flown in” making constant petty racist insinuations, programmes entitled “Henry the fat whimsical **** VIII” informing the English that we are them, this is the world according to us, and you’re just a spectator with no hope of getting control.

    Since 1996 the general effect has been yet more insidious control of Scottish affairs, this has increased not decreased. It is assisted via the creation of consent, colonial lobbyists – the propaganda machine that goes all the way back to that pro-anglo propagandist/ liar Geoffrey of Monmouth. Language. Accelerated via modern draconian events like the trade towers and the subsequent removal of personal liberty and privacy via a foreign government. A large jump I’ll grant you that. Yet an equally divisive opportunity for string pullers with colonial agendas.

    “We allow ourselves to be colonised not by “the English” but by an imperialist political mindset that divides humans and characterises their traits according to fixed national units. This imperialist mindset informs how we ought to think and behave in order to be Scottish.”

    That’s what everyone calls English propaganda. Whitey.

  4. I couldn’t agree more that there is a distasteful tendency in Britain, quite notably in official discourse, to objectivise ‘Englishness’ as the norm. This means we have things like ‘regional programming’ as a counterpart to ‘national television’. However, responding to the nationalist propaganda with nationalist counter-propaganda may lead Scotland to build a state which is equally nationalist and dehumanising as the British state has been. Independence instead could be an opportunity for Scotland to prioritise humanitarian and green politics over nationalist and neoliberal politics. The latter two have got us into the mess of global warming and global poverty. I would like to see a Scotland contributing to solutions to these problems.

    Life in Scotland in today is very different from life in Palestine as we all know. This allows us to have different and ultimately more nuanced political movements. In the colonial examples I listed the overarching demand for unity above all else, so as to thwart a colonial power, is necessitated by life being made so unbearable by those colonial powers. This is not so in Scotland where we enjoy political rights light years beyond those under mortar fire and or a one party state. As I said above that is not an argument against independence but an argument for considering what to take into account when we decide if want independence or not.

  5. Ard Righ says:

    Unity? is that the multiculturalism non-sequitur that is an insult to intelligence, the big modern affectation to progress? There is no culture where all cultures are forced to be part of the whole, you end up with individuals at the bay of corporate whim and colonial (etc) agendas.

    “more nuanced political movements” Which result in nothing happening, yawn.
    It is easy to to pontificate cerebral hubris nonchalantly whilst sooking on a croissant. In my ruthless opinion… “political rights light years beyond…” What? Democracy has never been a solution, just the mediocre collections of rambling and loosely gathered detritus of an age where everything was perceived mechanically and materially, backed up by whose got the largest guns. Part of that is obsolete. Clarity of observation comes from not being constantly involved- you have to leave to come back- educating from experience, not academia, reasoning with the truth of observation not re-iterated “fact” to some alien agenda. Iceland, there is a recent example of intelligent community action enshrined with some visionary wit at its core, the entire concept of politics, state and religions wiped to the side, a regular modern day “Declaration of Arbroath” they stood up and did it.
    I will not give the answer as to the route of independence, as I believe that true progress is the means by which you enlighten yourself and the results that effects. Independence is merely the abrogation of imperialism. That future is to be defined by natives who will exercise the right to make better of their situation, not via balanced/unbalanced quasi statements as questions as to “if” independence is an option- it is when and by native whom.

    1. “political rights light years beyond…” What?

      In some of the places I have mentioned people disappear for uttering the name of their nation. We enjoy political rights far beyond this in Scotland. This doesn’t disprove any need for independence but because our political lives are considerably more free and tolerable I think we have a responsibility to consider matters other than independence for it’s own sake. We can disagree but I would prioritise, for example, tackling poverty in Scotland above being independent. So if the SNP won’t tackle poverty, I won’t vote for them.

      When you say “There is no culture where all cultures are forced to be part of the whole, you end up with individuals at the bay of corporate whim and colonial (etc) agendas”. This is why I argue we need to strongly think through where we want to go with independence rather than pursuing it for it’s own sake and risking our political agenda being dominated by nationalism.

  6. Donald says:

    David Tobin if Alba was independent then she would have far more money (vast sums which currently to London) to tackle poverty.

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